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Interferon, Given Early, Keeps Multiple Sclerosis at Bay

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

May 17, 2001 -- If you're a fan of TV's The West Wing, you know that the first lady, who happens to be a medical doctor, has been giving the president interferon beta injections. Her covert attempts to keep his multiple sclerosis in check are right on target, according to the latest research. In a new study, patients who began taking the drug immediately after their first attack of MS symptoms were significantly less likely to have another.

In MS, the outer linings of nerve cells, called myelin sheaths, become hardened and scarred, forming lesions that interfere with signal transmission. This causes a variety of problems including weakness, double vision, dizziness, and strange pins-and-needle sensations.

Most people with MS have their first attack in early adulthood, and symptoms are often so mild, they're barely noticed. With each subsequent attack, however, more damage is done, and the disease can eventually become incapacitating.

"We have demonstrated that a very low dose of interferon beta, given within three months of the first attack of multiple sclerosis, is able to reduce by 24% the probability of having a second attack," says study leader Giancarlo Comi, MD, a professor of neurology at IRCCS Ospedale S. Raffaele in Milan, Italy.

Comi's team randomly assigned more than 300 patients with suspected MS -- they'd had just one episode of MS-like symptoms -- to receive a single interferon beta injection or a placebo injection every week for two years.

All patients underwent a complete examination every six months and had an MRI scan to check for the telltale lesions every 12 months.

At the end of the study, far fewer interferon patients than placebo patients had experienced a second attack or showed MS lesions on MRI. But "even in those patients who did have a second attack, the time between the first and second attacks was doubled by the drug," Comi tells WebMD.

"When we planned this study, the idea was that if we begin treatment as soon as possible after the first attack, then the disease would respond better than if we waited," he says. "There is no doubt that this study confirms that hypothesis."

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